There's a spirit of fatalism and dread that hangs over nearly every scene in Tony Gilroy's legal thriller Michael Clayton, and the miracle of the movie is that its grimness doesn't equal torpor; for a work drenched in both literal and figurative darkness, it's exquisitely, robustly entertaining. Like the films in the Bourne franchise (all of which Gilroy scripted), Michael Clayton is a smart, knotty diversion that keeps your senses, at all times, alert, and happily, the movie's ecologically minded plotline - involving an agricultural chemical company being sued for poisoning communities - doesn't have sanctimonious intent. The movie isn't designed to be Good for Us; it's just designed to be good. And it's very, very good.
The film moves like a bat out of hell in its opening seconds, with a frenzied voice-over rant by Tom Wilkinson's manic-depressive litigator, and proceeds to deliver a dazzling onslaught of character, plot, and exposition. Yet Gilroy, in his directorial debut, displays a true knack for economy - we seem to get exactly the shots we need for quick comprehension of character and situation - and his impressive control elicits trust; the sharply timed edits and focused work of the actors assure us that we're in very safe hands. After 10 minutes, the movie finally slows down for a quiet respite between the titular, deeply conflicted law-firm negotiator (George Clooney) and a trio of horses. It's an unexpectedly lovely moment - and a chance for the audience, and the hero, to breathe - and then, in a tranquility-shattering instant, things really start moving.
As Clayton burrows ever deeper into the chemical company's treachery and his firm's Machiavellian practices, Michael Clayton emerges a marvelously lucid and engaging thriller, and Clooney, his jaw determined and his eyes weary with disgust, is a thoroughly satisfying world-beater. But what makes Gilroy's work truly resonate is its attention to elements tangential to its cover-up plot. The sequences showing the edgy opposing council (a brilliant Tilda Swinton) practicing prepared remarks, and Clayton placating his disappointed brother and talking to his young son never feel like filler; Gilroy lends momentum and narrative drive to even the most ostensibly throwaway moments.
Michael Clayton takes only one unfortunate turn, and unfortunately, takes it right at the finale. (The film ends with the sort of enjoyable-yet-pandering climax that smells of studio interference.) In all other ways, though, the movie is superb. There's really only one correct response to a work this brimming with intellect and detail, this meaty and compelling, and that response is "thank you."
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
For those who've seen the trailers for Julie Taymor's Beatles-mania musical Across the Universe and are afraid that it'll be almost unbearably coy and precious, you should know that the leading lovebirds (played by Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess) are named Lucy and Jude, so you're kind of right.
But you should also know that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is only heard during the closing credits, and "Hey, Jude" (saved for the 120th minute of Taymor's 130-minute movie) is one of the best among many excellent, imaginative numbers, so you're also kind of wrong. Its concept, which finds 33 Beatles tunes fashioned into a spirit-of-the-'60s narrative, may sound too winsome for words, but Across the Universe turns out to be more clever than you'd think - an enjoyable, beautiful, and surprisingly haunting entertainment.
What's most extraordinary about the film isn't its aesthetic invention; coming from the director of Frida, Titus, and Broadway's The Lion King, Across the Universe was all but predestined to be a ravishing feast for the eyes. (My favorite Taymor-y routines here involved a fantastic freak-out choreographed to "I Want You [She's So Heavy]," and the sight of Joe Anderson's Vietnam vet being tended to by five Salma Hayeks.) Yet the relief of the movie is that the Beatles songs aren't just props used to goose along the admittedly tinny plot - they have vitality, and purpose, and some of the interpretations here border on the unforgettable.
Granted, these interpretations may make die-hard Beatles fans blanch, if not want to hurl things at the screen. But I found Taymor's staging of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a doleful, unrequited-lesbian-crush anthem almost embarrassingly touching - the director lightens the melancholy with background shots of cartwheeling football players - and the film's gospel take on "Let it Be" hugely satisfying. Sturgess' incensed, heartbroken performance of "Revolution" is wildly electric (the actor doesn't have one bum moment in the entire film), while "With a Little Help from My Fiends" might be the most purely playful musical number the movies have offered this decade.
Although they aren't bad, you wouldn't necessarily miss this musical's book scenes if they were gone, and the film feels a little emotionally detached - Across the Universe is not an easy movie to love. But it's an easy one to like, and an even easier one to admire; you've got to hand it to a work that ends with "All You Need is Love" and, though sheer chutzpah, has almost convinced you it's true.